Obama moves to soothe Japanese anger over death on Okinawa

Obama listens as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at the G-7 venue.
Obama listens as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at the G-7 venue.PHOTO: AFP

ISE-SHIMA, Japan (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Wednesday sought to ease Japanese anger over the death of a woman on Okinawa, expressing his "deepest regrets" and saying his country would cooperate in the prosecution of an American arrested over the crime.

A series of crimes, including rapes, assaults and hit-and-run vehicle accidents by US military personnel, dependants and civilians have for years sparked local protests on the crowded island that hosts numerous US military bases.

Public anger boiled over last week after police arrested a former US Marine in connection with the death of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman who had been missing since late April and was reportedly raped and murdered.

"I extended my sincerest condolences and deepest regrets," Obama said at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after they held talks.

"The United States will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation and ensure that justice is done under the Japanese legal system."

Obama arrived earlier on Wednesday for a two-day summit of Group of Seven countries, which formally begins Thursday.

A US citizen, who works at the sprawling Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, was arrested for allegedly disposing of the woman's body, Okinawan police have said.

Obama's comments came after Abe expressed indignation over the case.

"I feel profound resentment against this self-centred and absolutely despicable crime," he said.

Okinawa was the site of a fierce World War II battle between the US and Japan but is now a key strategic outpost supporting their security alliance.

It hosts the lion's share of US bases in Japan and more than half the 47,000 American military personnel in the country under a decades-long security alliance.

Abe on Monday told Okinawa's governor Takeshi Onaga that he would ask Obama to take action over crimes by US personnel on the southern island.

The case has threatened to overshadow a planned visit to Hiroshima immediately after the summit ends on Friday, though remarks by the two leaders likely helped clear the air.

Obama will become the only sitting US president to visit the world's first atomic-bombed city.

The Hiroshima visit by Obama, who has a record of calling for global denuclearisation, has been well received in Japan.

But the heavy US military presence on Okinawa has long been a thorn in the side of the two countries' relations.